The Seven Dwarfs

Since the last post, we have been working on choosing a builder for the project. It’s a big decision and not one you can make quickly. I’ll use pseudonyms for this blog post and name the builders after the Seven Dwarfs. Aside: Did you know that there are tons of crazy names given to the dwarfs in the last 100 years of adaptations?

First, we were given a reference for Axlerod (okay I decided to go with the 1965 Dwarf names from Mr. Magoo’s Little Snow White) through the energy consultant. The energy consultant had worked with the architects regarding the heating/cooling systems and the ventilation system. He had worked with Axlerod in the past and felt it would be a good match. In fact, Axle’s crew is skilled in finish carpentry which was a particular asset for this project (See the last blog post). So we met with Axle and his teammates.

They were definitely green energy geeks. They were also really excited by the Hanshaugen Restaurant which served as the model for our design. Axle felt confident that they could construct the exterior details that form the personality of the house. We filled out their material selection list and began making trips to tile shops, flooring stores, and kitchen hardware galleries. Things were going smoothly until we got our first proposal from them.

Ooof. It was a doozy. But how Axle and his team explained it, they just went through each of the elements getting bids or best-guess estimates based on square footage. They weren’t looking to hit a specific budget goal. And unfortunately their proposal was about 40% higher than our ideal budget. Not easy to swallow. We reluctantly decided to widen our builder search. Axle understood and agreed to keep working at the budget to bring down costs. We suggested leaving a couple major elements unfinished (the stone veneer arches at the walk out basement and the basement itself) to cut down costs. Then we had to approach other builders.

Since one of my goals is a green energy constructed home I was very wary of using conventional builders. So much of the performance of a green energy home depends on the detail and finesse that the builders put into it. Sealing every air leak and understanding how edges of the house come together smoothly are vital. I ended up sending out queries and speaking to six more builders. Here is how five of them went:

  1. Bartholemew was a friend of our guy building our road. “Talk to Bart!” he said. Well, we talked to Bart. We sent him plans. Then silence. After a few weeks we heard back that he isn’t licensed in our state so he couldn’t do the work. Okay. So he recommended Cornelius.
  2. Cornelius builds fancy homes. Our house is a fairly fancy home. I spoke with him and sent him the plans. He seemed interested. Then silence. After a few weeks, I sent him a follow-up email. Silence. So, maybe not so interested.
  3. Dexter was a nice guy who chatted with me for an hour one Saturday going over some of the details of our plan. He thought that our first bid was probably within the right ballpark, and said that he’d get back to me with some budget ideas. Then silence. I emailed him and got no reply.
  4. Eustace was a similar green energy builder who got back to me with a few questions regarding the plans. He replied a few times that he was still gathering bids. But after a month I still had nothing concrete from him. Time to pass.
  5. Ferdinand wasn’t sure if the project was too far for him so we sent him the plans to take a look. He spoke with the rest of his group and sadly decided that our town was a bit further out than they like to go.

Lastly was George. George and his wife run a design-build company. He drew up our house in ArchiCad and had a lot of ideas about the house. Some of them were about cost saving alternatives and some were about better flow in the house plan. We liked shifting some of the spacing to create a better kitchen space and adding some width to the staircase to gain doorway space elsewhere. A few ideas we had contemplated during our architect design phase but had opted against. For example we have a large master bathroom. He wondered why it was so large and offered some ideas to cut it down into two separate rooms. We explained that it was the only space suitable for direct sunlight for plants so we opted to keep it open. Cutting it into two separate rooms would create a lovely “grow room” but since our plants are entirely decorative it would be silly to hide them away. A few other ideas were aimed at cost savings but drastically changed the aesthetics. Overall though, we were impressed with the effort he had put into pouring over the details of the plans.

George did worry us with some of his concerns about some of the structural elements of the house. He recommended we eliminate windows in one area due to the concrete wall foundation and remove a steel beam to simplify the structural supports. He also suggested redesigning a balcony to eliminate a cantilever. He felt that it was necessary to spend time building the construction documents from the ground up with his construction knowledge.

At this point, Axlerod had come back with an improved budget by getting different bids, changing some construction methods, and by bringing some elements in-house instead of subcontracting. Their new proposal was 14% higher than our ideal budget. High, but within reach. We discussed with Axle our conversations with George because we wanted to address the concerns that George had brought up about the structure. Axle explained that they were happy with how the construction documents were drawn and had no concerns about each of these elements brought up by George. Axle noted that some builders like to build a specific way and want to mold houses in this image. This matched with our perception of George as well.

So we had to make a decision. Axle and his team brought enthusiasm, engagement, and shared values. They did scare us with their first budget, but worked hard to bring it more in line with what was feasible for us. George was clearly very thorough in his approach but couldn’t commit to a budget until the re-design. Ultimately we decided we trusted Axle. We shook hands and signed an agreement for the first phase.

Whew. We’re excited about moving forward on the house. There’s certainly a lot more to come over the next few months before the first hole is dug. We still have to obtain approval for a mortgage. And just as importantly we have to finish the road. If these things fall into place, we are tentatively aiming for July as our start.


16.12.10 Casements

My sketchup drawing of the house! Prize for getting to the bottom of the post.

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